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Car cloning explained

August 10, 2022 by

Worried your car might have been cloned, or curious what car cloning is and how you can prevent it? We have the answers

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery when it comes to music, writing and art, but it can be an absolute nightmare where cars are concerned.

Car cloning is a crime that sees people copy the identity of your car and put it on a similar car, with nefarious purposes in mind.

If you are the victim of car cloning you could face significant administrative and bureaucratic difficulties through no fault of your own, or even lose you thousands of pounds if you inadvertently buy a cloned car.

We explain the ins and outs of car cloning, how to tell if a car has been cloned, and what you can do about this issue.

What is car cloning?

Cars are identifiable primarily by their number plates; these bear a registration that links an individual car to a keeper and address, and effectively tells authorities who is responsible for the vehicle.

This means parking fines, speeding tickets and any number of issues that are linked to the car can be directed to the correct person (apart from where a car has been cloned). This makes a car’s registration a powerful thing that criminals may wish to copy, with the intention of and using it on a similar vehicle in to get away with speeding and parking penalties, for example, or commit more serious offences without a car’s number plate being used to link them to the crime.

In some instances stolen cars may be cloned so that they can be sold on with seemingly ‘clean’ identities – much to the misfortune of the buyer.

As many as 1,000 instances of car cloning have been reported to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in a single month.

How does car cloning work?

There are a variety of methods used to clone a car, but a common way is for criminals to look at classified adverts or showrooms for cars similar to the one they want to clone, and having an identical pair of number plates made up; these duplicate plates can then be affixed to the vehicle the crooks want to use, and hey presto, you have a cloned car.

In pre-internet days criminals may have just kept an eye out for similar (EG a silver hatchback of a specific make and model) car on the road to the one they wanted to clone, but online classified adverts make the process rather more convenient these days.

Physical number plates are supposed to be only issued by registered, approved vendors, but a loophole in legislation allows companies to sell ‘show plates’ (that are markets as intended for display at car shows rather than use on the road) without any checks.

A more rudimentary method of simply stealing physical plates straight from a car is not uncommon, and if you find your car is without number plates, contact the police, your insurance company and the DVLA, as they have been stolen from your car in order to be affixed to a cloned car.

How do I know if my car has been cloned?

The first indication many people get that their car has been cloned is when they receive a speeding fine (known as a Notice of Intended Prosecution, or NIP) or some other kind of ticket (such as a congestion or emission-zone penalty) through the post.

The first indication many people get that their car has been cloned is when they receive a speeding ticket or other penalty

If this happens to you, you may have a moment’s hesitation if the area the offence took place was close to somewhere you recently drove, but in many instances you may instantly be able to tell that there was no way the offence could have been committed by you or in your car, as you were driving on the other side of the country when it occurred.

If the offence is more serious (say the cloned car was used to commit a robbery), you may find the police turn up at your door wanting to ask you questions, or pull you over when you are travelling in your car and its number plate alerts officers via their Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.

If you buy a car that turns out to be cloned you may also find the police making contact with you, and it is likely the car will be seized and returned either to its rightful owner, or an insurance company that may have paid out following its theft.

What should I do if my car has been cloned?

This advice assumes you have received an NIP or ticket through the post for an offence committed by someone who has cloned your car. If police officers arrive at your house or pull you over, you may not have the time or presence of mind to search for and come across this article, although some of the ‘mopping up’ advice contained here may still be helpful.

The first thing you should do if your car has been cloned is contact the police and alert them of the offence. This can prevent or mitigate any further offences committed with the car being linked to you by default, and could also help prevent future crime. You should receive a crime reference number when you report the cloning.

You should also share any evidence with the police that shows your car has been cloned. You may not have timestamped home CCTV that shows your car safely on your driveway at the time in question, but you may be able to show via receipts, statements from friends or colleagues, or other evidence, that you did not commit the offence. A crime number may well be enough to stop you being chased by the authority that issued the penalty, though.

Next, contact the authority issuing the fine or NIP, explaining to them that you are not responsible for the offence, and that your car has been cloned. Give them the crime number you received from the police, and any evidence you may have that would support the fact you are not responsible for the offence, share this with the issuing party.

Penalty-charge notices often include accompanying evidence showing the offence – for example a camera image of the car driving in the bus lane; ask for photographic evidence to be supplied if it is not.

Look carefully at any image that is shared with you in relation to the offence: is the car the same make and model as yours (some cloners will use a random registration and stick it on any old vehicle)? Is it the same colour? Are there any identifying marks (EG stickers, decals, dents and scratches) that clearly show the car is not yours? Are the alloy wheels the same? Is the person driving clearly a different sex or race to you? Considerations such as these can make it obvious that your car has been cloned if you are asked for evidence you are not responsible for the offence.

The police may put a ‘marker’ on their computer systems detailing that your car has been cloned; this can help stop you being pulled over, or assist in detecting the offenders.
You should also contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to let them know your car has been cloned; the DVLA can issue you with a new registration for your car if you ask them to do this.

Much of the above might not be applicable to you, and you may find that both reporting the cloning and explaining you are not responsible for any offence is a simple task. But there have been (rare) instances of people being arrested and taken in for questioning after their car has been cloned, so the more information you have, the better.

How to stop my car being cloned

Following the usual advice of parking in well-lit areas, or considering a home CCTV system to deter criminals if you have off-street parking, are both wise preventative measures to deter someone stealing the number plates directly from your car.

You can also buy theft-resistant number-plate screws that require a dedicated tool or bit to remove for your number plates; these can be bought online, or from car-parts stores.

If you are advertising your car for sale, you may wish to physically obscure its number plates, or digitally blur the registration in the advert’s photographs (smartphone camera apps often allow this to be done easily.) Be aware that some potential buyers may be put off by this though, thinking perhaps that you are stopping them from checking the car’s history or MoT record. Either way, obscuring number plates when sharing images of your car on social media is also a sensible precaution.

Blurring or blanking a car’s number plate can be a wise move if sharing images online

What to do if you have bought a cloned car?

As outlined earlier, the consequences of buying a cloned car are potentially very expensive, as if this is detected, the police are likely to seize the vehicle and return it to the rightful owner, or its insurance company if a claim was made and paid out. It does not matter if you bought the car in good faith: it does not technically belong to you, so you have no claim to it.

While the seller of the car will be technically liable to give you a full refund, you may well struggle to contact them if they knowingly sold you a stolen car.

If you bought the car using a credit card you may be able to claim the money back using “Section 75” rules – ask your credit card company about this, though note there is a £30,000 limit on any claim, while debit cards do not afford the same protection.

How do I avoid buying a car that has been cloned?

Using a reputable firm like carwow to buy your car is a good way of avoiding a cloned vehicle.

You should also put any car through a vehicle history check, while if a deal seems to good to be true (IE if the car is significantly cheaper than you might reasonably expect), this should also ring alarm bells.

If you’re viewing the car in person, you should also check the VIN (vehicle identification number) shown on the V5C logbook matches the VIN stamped on the car; this will typically be found at the base of the windscreen, on a door jamb, or stamped on bodywork. If the VIN on the V5C doesn’t match the VIN on the car, or if it looks like the VIN on the car has been altered or obscured, walk away, and consider contacting the police.

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